Graff isn’t quite human. His people move through the galaxy collecting memories and experiences, recording their lives and passing them on. Then, one day, he breaks: he discovers a chunk of his memory is missing. This should be impossible—he’s never forgotten a moment in his life. Now, he has to learn to forget, and to remember, and this has consequences for all his people, his culture, and his whole world.
I’ve been having bad dreams.
I don’t remember them. Dreams are a mostly autonomous physiological phenomenon and aren’t recorded with the rest of my life. But I’ve been waking up vaguely unhappy, with a soreness in my muscles like they’ve been twitching all night. It feels like bad dreams.
I haven’t told anyone.
Ransom and I are in a passenger lounge in the B level of Tre Ateyna Station, killing time. It’s swanky and we don’t fit in, with our utilitarian ship jumpsuits and militaristic short-cropped hair. Ransom doesn’t have any insignia because he doesn’t really need it. Everyone who needs to know he’s the captain knows. I’ve got the Visigoth ship patch on my shoulder. It shows a cartoon rat with a sword. Like so many things about our outfit, it started as a joke and then stuck. Too late to change it now.
Everyone else in the lounge is fashionable. Sturdy travel clothes in bright colors with interesting textures and accessories. Nothing that could get tangled up in unexpected zero g, but enough to do what fashion is supposed to do, when done correctly, which is advertise that the wearer has both money and taste. We don’t look quite uncouth enough to call security, but the transiting passengers give us a wide berth. I’m enjoying it. Three days of shore leave, just enough time for me to get out a signal to contact someone from home for a meeting, to download everything I’ve collected since the last meeting. Experiences. Memories. Me. All of it gets back home eventually.
Me, and those like me, aren’t entirely human. We’re supposed to be secret, but Ransom and the crew found out. Somehow, they still seem to like me. Even Ell. Especially Ell. My profound relief at getting to stay with my crew will be deeply present on that download, when Tez gets here. And I’ll find out if she’s been keeping an eye on me, because I’ll get everything she’s experienced. I have a feeling she’s been keeping an eye on me, after the accident and subsequent revelation.
Things got weird on the Visigoth for awhile, but Ransom has decided he likes having a not-quite-human on his crew. There are benefits: my instant recall, higher-than-average everything. I can take damage. “I just thought you had a really good memory. Really fast reflexes,” he told me, when I finally healed from spilling my not-quite-guts everywhere and we were able to sit and drink and talk. “Not anything outside the realm of possibility.”
“Yeah, we do that on purpose,” I’d replied, which only reminded him that I’m not the only one. He’s used to thinking tactically, and he’s probably spent some time thinking about how to face a culture of not-quite-humans in a conflict. I could tell him that we’re not really warriors. But, well, I am, and I’m all he has to go on.
Slouching in the seat next to mine, arms crossed, Ransom glances at me sidelong. “Can you tell me what we were doing on this day ten years ago exactly?”
He does this every now and then, as if he needs reassurance. “Is this a test?”
“Sure, why not?”
It’s not a significant moment in itself, but it’s surrounded by significant moments, which might be why he chose it. “That was three days after you took command of the Visigoth. We’d spent all day interviewing crew, and you got Nix for ops. Message came right in the middle of screening this poor scared kid for weapons specialist.”
“Oh my god, what the hell was that kid doing selling himself as a weapons specialist? Wonder what happened to him.”
“We could look him up.”
He huffs a laugh. “Oh, that’s okay.”
I hold up my hand because there’s more. “Anyway, you were so happy about Nix saying yes that we went drinking to celebrate and you went home with a girl named Trish. She wanted to see the ship and thought you were drunk enough to say yes. But you weren’t.”
“You know, I’d forgotten her name.”
Wasn’t like Ransom to forget a name in that particular circumstance, which meant he probably hadn’t slept with her. I don’t remember that part because I wasn’t there, he never said, and I never asked. Shortly after he left with Trish, I left with a guy named Chris, and we did sleep together, and I remember every minute of it.
“How can you stand it?” Ransom asks.
“Remembering everything. What about the stuff you want to forget?”
“Like in primary school when my pants ripped from top to bottom and everyone saw I wasn’t wearing underwear.” He actually blushes a little, some red in his ears, from that remembered mortification. Memory can be so physical.
I try really hard not to laugh. “See, you didn’t forget that.” He gives me one of those looks, and I shake my head. “Naw, I don’t want to forget anything. It all matters.”
A reunion of some sort is happening up the corridor, two groups in color-coordinated suits that somehow avoid looking like uniforms. I’m thinking business associates rather than a family. A dozen of them erupt in loud greetings and laughter, and they come together hugging and slapping one another’s backs, all of them chatting over each other in a language I don’t recognize, and it’s heartwarming. Familiar. I imagine a scene like this happening a thousand years ago on the dock next to a sailing ship. On some level people are the same everywhere.
Even my people.
I feel Tez before I see her, the hum of our coded transponders, part of the hidden network. I sit up, and Ransom follows my gaze to see what I’m looking at.
She does fit in, wearing a jacket and loose trousers, her short red hair swept back in a style that is definitely intentional. She’s pretty, serene, with a valise over one shoulder, just an ordinary woman traveling from one spot to another. She meets my gaze across the space, and we approach each other. Ransom’s at my shoulder.
“Tez,” Ransom greets her.
She smiles. “Captain, good to see you again.”
I step forward. The need to make contact, to shake hands and create the connection that exchanges information, is a compulsion. We’re eager for it. I approach, reaching to take her offered hand—and I hesitate.
I draw my hand back, just an inch. She tilts her head, confused, and I can’t explain. It’s like my brain can’t tell my arm to move. I can’t finish the circuit.
“Graff?” she asks.
I whisper, “I’ve been having bad dreams.”
She closes the distance herself and takes my hand. I shut my eyes and sag with relief because the pinch of connection and flow of information that follows is right and good and a comfort—until lines form on her brow, a crease of worry, and the flow stops.
I can’t read her download. Her memories. The circuit is interrupted.
She lets go with the gesture of dropping something hot and says, “Graff. You’re broken.”
I stare for a moment.
And then I collapse.
My muscles seize in a panicked fit, and my processor spins with a whole bunch of diagnostics. I feel like I’ve been stunned, which means danger, which means hostiles, and I need to assess—
“Lie still. Just lie still.” Ransom’s hands are on my shoulders, forcing me to lie on the floor.
“Broken how?” I demand of Tez, trying to sit up despite Ransom. I feel fine—no I don’t, the diagnostic scan has found something, and my processor heats up.
A couple of uniformed station security officers have arrived, and Ransom holds them off. “He just fainted. A bit dehydrated. It’s fine.” They seem skeptical, but they leave us alone and work on breaking up the crowd that has gathered.
This is embarrassing. “How?” I ask again.
“You’re missing time,” she says.
“That isn’t possible.”
“It shouldn’t be, but there it is. Three hours and twenty-four minutes of missing memory. Were you . . . I don’t know, in a coma? In stasis?”
That would have been recorded as being in a coma or in stasis. I assess my own processor. “There’s no gap. I’m not reading a gap.”
“Our chronometers don’t match.”
Another shuddering fit of panic passes through me. This isn’t right. One of us is wrong. I don’t feel broken, so it must be her—
But I’m the one who passed out. I lace fingers through my hair and growl in frustration.
“There must be a mistake,” Ransom says.
“Look at him,” Tez murmurs, and she’s not wrong. An anomaly has been detected; my body is trying to account for it, and failing. I’ve started running a fever, and my internal diagnostics are screaming.
“Which three hours?” I demand. “Exactly which?”
She rattles off the date and time to the second. A segment from just two weeks ago. I review, sitting frozen on the carpet of this posh passenger lounge, helpless. I’m used to being the strongest person in the room. Is that Ransom holding my hand? Shit.
I find the moment. I was on assignment, planetside on Wellbien, a deceptively named backwater outside Trade Guild territory, tracking the second-in-command of a smuggling outfit, our latest target. I’d planted myself at a bar to wait. According to my chronometer, I’d been there less than an hour. Not even an hour.
Daylight when I got there, dark when I left. Way too dark. More than an hour. I’d never noticed the anomaly. Why. My processor freaks out even more because it can’t find the gap; the memory is seamless. But it’s wrong. Recognizing one inconsistency cascades into a dozen others, trying to fill that gap with explanations. My target never showed up. I reported that my target never showed up.
I was sure my target never showed up. I was sure— But what if?
Ah. This must be what having a heart attack feels like. I focus hard to keep my breathing steady. Memory can be so physical.
Suddenly, I look at Tez. Whatever error this is, she’s got it now. “Are you okay?”
“Downloaded memory is compartmentalized, you know that,” she says gently. “I’m fine.”
“I just . . . I worry.” My lungs hurt, I’m trembling, and I squeeze my hands to try to stop it and I can’t.
Tez says, “I need to get him home.”
“I don’t want to go,” I murmur.
“Then you won’t go,” Ransom insists.
She shakes her head. “You don’t understand, he’s broken. You can’t help him.”
“Like hell,” he answers.
I find that very inspiring. I take hold of her wrist, a very normal human gesture, no downloading involved. It breaks my heart that she flinches. “I want him to try.”
Ship logs. Tez identified the gap when her processor tried to sync our chronometers, so we know what time the gap covers, and ship logs will tell us what should be in that gap of memory. “Captain—”
He’s already on his comm, talking to the ship. “Nix, I want logs from the following range. Encrypt and transmit to my tablet.”
“Not just ship logs,” I say. Breathing is an effort; talking more so. What is happening to me? “That assignment on Wellbien. See if you can get surveillance, security reports. The bar, the name of that bar—”
“You can’t remember?” Ransom says, astonished. He finally seems to believe that I’m really broken.
“Starshine, the bar was called Starshine. That’s where the gap in memory is. If we can figure out what happened . . .”
He repeats this into the comm and Nix confirms, already pulling security data.
“Graff, we need to go,” Tez says, pulling my arm over her shoulder.
“If he needs to go home the Visigoth will take him,” Ransom says.
“It’s classified!” They’re sniping at each other.
“Stop arguing,” I mutter. I plead with Tez. “Let him come. I need him to figure this out.” This is a big ask. The biggest. This is breaking rules fundamental to who we are, but I have this terrible feeling that if I leave Ransom I will never see him, or Ell, or the Visigoth, or any of them ever again. “Please. I know he can help.”
Her sigh is resigned. “You’ll be the one answering for it.”
“Answering for what?” Ransom asks. I’m afraid we both glare at him, unable to articulate explanations. Home is just a little bit wary of outsiders. As in, no one from outside has ever even made it to orbit. This is . . . going to be rough.
Tez says to me, “Just him, on my ship. Not your crew. We’re going to get in trouble enough as it is.”
Ransom hesitates at this. Leave the Visigoth behind?
“It’s okay,” I say, patting his arm. “You should stay.”
Resolve settles over him. “No. I don’t trust them not to take you apart.”
He helps Tez get me to my feet. I’m able to walk, but I’m glad they’re on either side of me, just in case. Station security trails us until Ransom tells them off. Then he calls the Visigoth again.
“Nix? There’s a situation. Graff and I are going on assignment for a bit.”
A hesitation. “Was this planned?” the comm answers.
“Not even a little bit. I can’t give you a time frame either. Can you and the crew handle the courier job by yourselves?”
“Don’t ask, I don’t think I can explain it. How’s that data dump coming?”
“Ready in ten minutes.”
I need to call Ell. Actually, I need to see him. I need to explain in person. But Tez is also right—I’m breaking, and we need to go now. We have ten minutes, and that isn’t enough time for him to get to this side of the station, and if I see him I might not be able to let him go.
My comm is already beeping when I reach for it.
“Graff?” And it’s Ell. Visigoth’s doctor. My friend. My lover.
“Hi.” I don’t know how to tell him this. “So, word got around fast.”
“I was right next to Nix when Ransom commed. What the hell is going on?”
Lie, I should blithely lie, so he doesn’t worry. Except if I don’t come back he’ll hate me forever, and that hurts. I might not come back. I have to sit with that a moment, as the truth of it settles into me.
“I’m sick, I guess. Something in my processor is . . . it’s not right, and Tez is taking me home to get me looked at.”
“If you’re sick then I should be there—”
“You can’t do anything about this.”
He knows I’m right. He’s the one who had his hands buried my innards in that spectacular accident that revealed my true nature to the crew. He knows he can’t help. “Then let me go with you. To hold your hand, or whatever.”
“Because I don’t know if it’s safe.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m not supposed to bring people home and I don’t want to drag you into trouble,” I say. Not lying, not explaining, either. My whole life is that.
Ell laughs a little. “What’re they going to do, kill me?”
I don’t say anything. Tez frowns harder. Ransom’s giving me a look.
“Still want to come?” I ask him.
Ransom takes the comm out of my hand. “Doctor, you stay with the ship, that’s an order. I’ll look after Graff.”
“How is that going to—” He stops. No one argues with Ransom. “Graff.” His voice turns strained.
“I’m going to do everything I can to get back here in one piece.”
“I love you.” My eyes squeeze shut because this hurts in every way possible. I know he answers the same, but it’s getting hard to listen.
Tez’s runner isn’t really built for three. She’s got the crash couch, leaving the two of us with jump seats in the back. She hooks me up to an oxygen mask and injects anti-inflammatories while we’re waiting for the last transmission from the Visigoth.
The medications only help a little. The fever stops rising but doesn’t break. I can’t seem to keep my processor from panicking, trying to fill that gap in the data. My eyes aren’t focusing right, and that’s a little scary.
“Sleep if you can,” she says before moving to get the ship out of dock.
“Captain?” Ransom’s comm announces. “Here it is.”
He gives a short laugh of triumph while studying the data coming in on his handheld. “Shit, how much did you get?”
“A lot,” Nix says wryly. “There’s more—a lot of this was already pulled and isolated, by an unidentified security entity.”
“What?” Ransom exclaims, going even more tense. “What does that mean?”
“Someone doesn’t want anyone looking at this. What’s this about?”
“Not sure. Include whatever first-pass analysis you can for me and make it quick.”
“Yes, sir. Good luck to you both.”
“Thanks. See you soon.” He pats my shoulder before securing himself in his own seat, still reading the data.
I’d love to get my eyes on that. Am desperate to, but I’m not really in any shape for data analysis. My processor is spinning, looking for missing memories that just aren’t there.
If I can get in there and cordon off the damaged piece of memory, my processor would stop freaking out. I might not be able to heal it, but I could partition it, like a cyst. But I can’t tamper with my own database. It’s designed to be tamperproof. The same thing that is supposed to make this impossible means I can’t fix myself.
Logically, I think I’ve been fucked with. So now I’m sick and angry.
The trip takes long enough to cover a couple of meals. Tez has food; I can’t keep any of it down. After my third time throwing up in a bag, Ransom looks worried. Even more worried. I’m not supposed to be able to get this sick. Tez doesn’t have much in the way of medical supplies, and I’m using them all up.
Finally, the ship passes through the last jump and enters orbit. I should be relieved but I feel like the worst is yet to come.
“We’re here,” Tez says. “Prepare for docking.”
I haven’t been home in more than twenty years. I had not planned on coming back for another thirty, if at all, given my line of work. There’s a rattle and thump, the ship shakes. I reflexively grip the straps on the chair. Ransom doesn’t. He crosses his arms and glares at Tez’s back.
She powers down the runner. “Wait,” she says. And leaves, locking the hatch behind her.
“What’s happening?” Ransom asks after she’s gone.
“She’s reporting. I expect she doesn’t know what to do with us.”
He takes a calming breath. “I need you to tell me everything about this place.”
I have always evaded. Where’s home for you, Graff? Oh, it’s way out, you’ve never heard of it. Tell me about it? Kinda boring, really. I talk about it like someone hiding a dark past, so Ransom never pushes. But now it’s a matter of tactics.
I explain what I’ve never had to explain to anyone. “This world is a database, and is home to the people who take care of that database. It’s . . . we consider it a repository. A recording of humanity. It’s sacred, Ransom. I don’t know if I can really convey what that means to us.”
“I need the logistics, not metaphysics.”
I swallow against a lump in my throat. “I am potentially a vector of damage to the database and will be treated accordingly.”
“What does that mean?”
I don’t know, I’ve never heard of this happening before. I don’t say anything, but I must look anxious.
“Foreigners?” he asks.
“Also a potential vector of damage.”
He nods. “What about fixing the problem? Keeping you safe? Is that a priority?”
“That will depend on the nature of the damage.”
“Fuck that.” He hefts his tablet like it’s a pistol. “You recognize him?” He turns the screen around, showing me the image of a man lifted from blurry security-camera footage. Very young, maybe even still a teenager. Pale skin, short blond hair. He’s wearing the nondescript shirt and jumpsuit of a manual laborer.
He’s staring at me from the front entrance of the Starshine Bar. I’m sitting in a far corner, in a run-down booth, nursing a beer. This matches the memory I have of this place, of where I was before and after the missing time. I have no memory of this lanky kid staring at me like he’s seen a ghost. I would have remembered that. Should have remembered. “That’s a no.”
Ransom’s eyes gleam with the eagerness of a hunter. “Well then.” He dives back in.
Tez is gone for two hours. When she returns, standing at the edge of the hatch, her expression is carefully neutral. “Come with me.”
I manage to peel myself out of the seat. Ransom is right there, reaching to steady me, but I pull away from him. I’m shaking, but I’m upright, I’m strong. At least that’s what I tell myself.
We’re in an isolated part of the station. A small, empty corridor with a low ceiling, moderate lighting, dead quiet, not even the hiss of a fan. I feel myself wanting to reach out to the dozens of others I know must be on the station. I could just go through that doorway and I would really be back home—
Tez points to another docking hatch. “You’ll take the shuttle down. Both of you.”
Ransom says to me, “Is that good or bad?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
He raises a brow at Tez. “What about you?”
All she says is, “Good luck.” She walks away, steps tapping on the metal deck, out the door I desperately want to go through because it would mean things are normal.
Ransom and I are alone, between two hatches.
“It feels like we’re heading into a fight,” Ransom says.
I don’t know if we are. I would never have thought so. “Thank you,” I say. “Just for being here.”
“No impossible-odds monologuing here. I forbid it.”
He opens the hatch. I climb into the tiny shuttle pod and he follows. The craft is on an automated flight plan. We just have to sit there and be patient, which is maybe the one thing both of us are no good at.
The planet below is verdant, beautiful, enticing.
We only get one life, and I remember every minute of mine, from just before the moment my artificial gestation ended and I was settled in my primary parent’s arms for the first time. A blaze of panic and confusion, and then peace. Those early years are necessarily fuzzy. Babies can’t really focus at first, don’t really understand the boundary between them and the world, so the first few years of memory are mostly a series of milestones, of discoveries that are hard to make sense of as an adult who takes those parameters for granted. But my people have a deep care and sympathy for small ones because we remember the difficulty of making sense of it all.
We only get one life, and there is a vague, unspoken demand to make it the best, perfect, when the better philosophy is probably to simply be. To experience. To enjoy. The best life doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
During the trip, I’ve been reviewing my own life in unhealthy detail, and I recognize the impulse as fatalism. As a response to believing my life might be ending. The thing about life is, when you find a mistake you can’t go back and fix it before turning it in. As if the whole mess is a project that’s going to be graded. It’s not, but it would be nice to have my life be a useful contribution to the database.
We only get one life, and we all have a terrible fear that we’re doing it wrong. But I don’t think I did. There are no mistakes I’d like to change.
Except I think I should have tried to see Ell before we left Tre Ateyna. Just in case.
The shuttle brings us from orbit to an isolation bay, a landing platform with walls on four sides and only one way in and out, through a sealed door. There’s atmosphere here, sky, sun, nice views, the whole package, but we can’t see any of it once we land. Just the flat gray walls that make sure we can’t race away unsupervised. However much I might want to.
I am breaking so many rules by bringing Ransom here that I’m a little drunk with it. The feeling of being outside my own head and charging full speed ahead from sheer inertia.
The shuttle powers down on its own, until all is quiet except for the clicks and snaps of the cooling engine. And then we just sit there, letting our ears and stomachs adjust to planet-side gravity. Acknowledging that, as of this moment, we’ve gone too far to turn back. Ransom presses his fists to his knees like he’s waiting for the battle to start.
My voice is cheerful and manic. “It’ll be fine. The physiology and data people will get here and this’ll all be taken care of—”
“What happens if it isn’t fine?” Ransom says evenly. I let out a deep involuntary sigh. His lips curl wryly. “Right, then.”
I pop the hatch and breathe in the air of Home for the first time in years.
Ransom is the first foreigner to breathe this air . . . in maybe ever. Surely not. This can’t be that unprecedented. We climb out and move away from the ship. Our hard-booted steps click on the floor and echo against the featureless walls. A cage of sorts. Those returning from their journeys must be welcomed back properly, processed and debriefed. The door is supposed to be open, to welcome them home.
“How long has it been since you’ve been back?” Ransom asks. The space makes his voice sound hollow.
“Twenty years, four months, eight days. A few extra hours depending on whether you count leaving the surface or breaking orbit as leaving the planet.”
He gives me one of those looks. This is not the time to try to be funny.
“You miss it?”
“The air . . . I remember exactly that smell.” Mountains form the backbone of this continent, and even on the plain below, where the port is, you can smell stone and forests and the snow-touched air of the mountains. “I’ve never smelled that exact smell anywhere else. My progenitors run a nursery school at the foot of that low peak to the west.”
“Your mean your parents?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
The door opens, sliding back without a sound. I square my shoulders and get between it and Ransom. He shifts so that he’s in front of me instead, and I won’t stand for that, so I try to shoulder him aside, until we devolve into a brief slapstick routine, each of us trying to shield the other. We end up standing side by side, glowering.
A cleric enters, meets my gaze, and stops. They are tall, long-limbed, with a head of short-cropped dusky brown hair and the lined face of someone who is always worried. They are wearing a cream-colored, loose-fitting tunic and trousers, the kind of breezy outfit one would wear for a day of shopping in a temperate climate. Comfortable. Nothing else about this is.
There’s no insignia, no rank; as with Ransom, they don’t need any because people are just supposed to know. They are taking the measure of me. I try to be a wall. Nothing to see here. . . .
I wonder what they thought when Tez downloaded this whole mess. My system is humming from being in proximity to another like me. I ought to step forward, offer my hand. I try to raise my hand, but my whole arm trembles, and the cleric notes this.
“I . . . I can’t,” I say.
“I know, son,” they answer.
This . . . is bad. This is what we do, we reach and make contact, sparking connection between our circuits, sharing all that we are. The urge is there, the need, my system recognizing that another is near and wanting to take the other hand. I’m left hanging. I stumble, fighting another seizure, hugging myself. Ransom holds my shoulders.
“So now what?” I ask through gritted teeth.
The cleric glances past my shoulder to the foreigner.
“I’m Elias Ransom.” He says this as a challenge.
“I know who you are,” the cleric says, a statement of fact, revealing no emotion. “And how Graff feels about you.”
My memories have made it home. My experiences, passed from person to person with handshakes as I met my compatriots across the galaxy. We share, so we can, eventually, bring one another home. This is our purpose. Knowing my self has been carried home is a thrill and a relief.
“Are you a doctor?” Ransom asks bluntly, and I cringe a little, because no, this person isn’t a doctor, not in the usual sense.
“I’m Farin, a deputy analytor.”
Ransom’s brow furrows; he doesn’t know what that means.
I should take Farin’s hand so I can deliver everything I carry. But I’m broken and they know it. The panic starts to rise up again. The gap, the missing time, I can explain, give me a minute and I can explain. . . . Stay calm, calm. . . . I do not know Farin, I have never met anyone who knows them, and this is fine, that our circles of experience have never crossed. But it means I have a terrible lack of information and suspect this has been done on purpose.
“Come with me, both of you.”
This is a battle. A mission. In those terms, this is what I’m good at. I can do this. Stand in opposition. “No.” My denial echoes.
I glare at Farin. “Not until Ransom’s safety is guaranteed. Whatever happens to me, he needs to be allowed to leave.”
Farin must have been chosen for this job for their studied neutrality, because just looking at them I can’t tell if I’ve said the right thing or the wrong thing. “Until we understand what has happened to you, I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Then no.” I sit cross-legged, right there on the concrete pad. “We stay here until we get this sorted.” I feel like a child. I’m acting like a child. I don’t care. I also have this terrible feeling that if we pass through that door, we are never coming back out again.
Farin turns to my friend. “Captain Ransom, I need to be entirely honest with you. There are questions.”
“Ask and I’ll answer.”
“Can you prove that you were not the one to sabotage Graff’s processor?”
His expression scrunches up in confusion. “Why would I do that?”
Farin raises an inquiring brow as if the answer is obvious.
“That man has stood at my back and saved my life over and over again, and now you’re saying that you think I’d use him to infiltrate an unknown planetary entity? Are you out of your mind?”
He’s a cosmic force when he gets like this. I love it.
“So you’ve thought of it,” Farin says.
“Only just now when you brought it up!” He takes a moment to steady himself. “Look. If you have a repository of human knowledge and experience here then you know that nobody outside this culture has the technology to do what you’re suggesting.”
“Somebody does.” I nod at his tablet, and at the face he showed me.
“Explain,” the cleric says.
“The missing time,” I answer, struggling past the fever and aching lungs. “We know the parameters of the missing time, so we just have to figure out what happened to me in that gap.” What was erased . . . If I think of this situation as an assignment, that gives me a basis for behavior. If I think, None of my people has ever been in this situation before, ever, I freak out. Just a little.
“Let me see,” Farin says, hand out.
Ransom hesitates, but we’re already at an impasse, we can’t get more entrenched than we are, so he hands it over. There’s something familiar and comforting in the gesture, when Farin takes the tablet from him. It’s like a data exchange, a download. They didn’t clasp hands to do it, but it still works, in translation. This gives me hope.
Farin needs a few minutes to learn the tablet’s interface. This isn’t how we’re used to processing data.
“That’s right at the start of the missing time,” Ransom explains. “There’s a lot of data to dig through but I think we can do it.”
“I’ve never had to reconstruct a memory before,” I said. “It’s a little weird.”
“Your processor is overheating,” Farin notes, eyeing me.
Sweat dampens my hairline, and I’m gasping. I’m not okay.
“One moment.” Farin hands the tablet back to Ransom and goes back out the door. He returns a moment later, pushing a cart full of equipment. It’s something like a trauma rig, to treat both my biological and mechanical components. Farin kneels beside me and gets to work. Doesn’t even tell me to lie back or relax, just works with me as I am, wrapping a monitor around my wrist, attaching another to my neck. I try to help, I do actually want to be helpful, but Farin gently sets my hand aside. Next, an IV line, the biological equivalent of a hard-line interface. Medication administered, my heart rate and blood pressure settle.
“Captain, will you hold him?”
Ransom puts his arm over my shoulders and coaxes my weight against him. I have no choice but to relax; there’s a sedative coming in through the IV. I hate being helpless, but don’t fight it. No choice, really.
Last, Farin attaches a hard-line data interface to my hand. This doesn’t have the same catharsis as downloading to another person, but it means I’m not alone and that’s good. Farin studies a display monitor and gives me a sideways, appraising glance. “Now, remember something pleasant, to give me a baseline.”
A baseline for what? For normal? But the memory is right there. A favorite. The morning after that first night with Ell. I leaned back in his arms in a languid stupor while he played with my hair, and he said, “I was a little afraid of you when we first met.”
That’s absurd, I thought. “I’m not scary.”
“Yes, you are, it’s your job to be scary. The crew tells stories about you. How you’re unbreakable. How you’re never afraid.”
This is not true. I’m afraid a lot, but I get a rush out of powering through fear, and that’s hard to explain.
Ell continued, “But you’re just a big kitten, aren’t you?”
This is more accurate, and I snuggled more firmly into his arms and said, “Purr.” He laughed. This memory has been passed on along with everything else. Everyone here knows how I feel about Ell. If Farin sees the details of this memory on their monitor, they don’t reveal it. But it’s worked. I feel just a little bit calmer.
“Isn’t there someplace better to do this?” Ransom says. “Someplace more . . . hospital-like?”
“I hate hospitals,” I say, and he glares at me.
Farin says, “There is an argument being made that it will be easier to allow you to leave if you do not move past this area. And I assume you’re not willing to leave his side.”
“Okay we stay here,” I say quickly.
“Now, Graff,” Farin says, studying the display. “Please tell me the last thing you remember before the gap.”
This is the kind of work we do all the time on the Visigoth: tracking down bad guys. But it’s weird because the target we’re tracking down this time is me.
The young man in the bar who looked at me with such profound shock appears to have no official record. Nix dredged a truly profound amount of information from various Wellbien sources, and we can’t find him. Oh, he shows up on security footage here and there. But he seems to have simply appeared on the planet fully formed, no arrival or departure records, no registry, nothing.
It’s a good mystery. We’re all intrigued. I might wish that my personal intersection with this mystery hadn’t caused so much damage. Three shitty hours. I could have been watching a vid.
The relevant bit of footage from the Starshine Bar lasts for about ten minutes. I keep thinking of the young man as “kid,” which isn’t fair but he just looks younger and younger the more I watch. He moves like he’s inexperienced. He hesitates at the door, as if he’s debating between fleeing or continuing on. He continues on.
By this time, I’ve noticed him watching me. I catch his gaze and smile a little, then look away. He isn’t my target, but his obvious wet-behind-the-ears manner has amused me. At least, I’m assuming that’s what I thought then, because I’m thinking it now, and I don’t remember.
The kid hauls himself onto a barstool and gets a drink.
“There.” My original target has walked in. A tall woman wearing a head wrap covering part of her face and disguised armor. Unlike almost everyone else entering, she doesn’t stop to survey the place, but marches straight to a door in the back. Over in the corner, I don’t make a move, don’t react at all. This was a tagging assignment—I spotted her, got her location, that’s all I needed.
I don’t remember spotting her. I was sure I reported that I never saw her. Except I did, and I reported—and forgot. The truth is right there, the time of my transmission recorded in the Visigoth’s log. Stick a pin in that moment.
Meanwhile on the security footage, four toughs enter the bar, heavily armored, in uniforms I don’t recognize. The kid jumps up and races out of frame.
And I follow.
The scene cuts out and we don’t know what happens next.
“Welp,” Ransom says.
Farin says to me, “I would be surprised but I’ve seen your record.” Ransom actually chuckles at this.
I’m sort of feeling what Farin is: I don’t remember this but I’m not surprised. So, stick a pin in another moment, and the gap of missing time narrows. I’m really tired. Whatever is being pumped into me to keep my system stable is knocking me out.
“Who are those guys?” I say.
Ransom is furiously working at the tablet. “Interesting question, that.”
We learn. Piece by piece we learn.
We specialize in security. We’re supposed to know who everyone is, and we figure it out by looking at armor styles, weaponry, and protocol: these guys are Trade Guild MilDiv special ops, incognito. They’re after this kid and don’t want to be traced. We still don’t know who the kid is but I’m excessively curious.
“Nix said the footage was already pulled,” I say tiredly.
“They’re tracking him and don’t want anyone to know.”
“Does that mean MilDiv knows about me?”
“Question for later,” Ransom says brusquely.
The rest comes in flashes. A bit of footage here and there. Wellbien doesn’t have great surveillance coverage of public spaces—local syndicates have helped with that. But we find a few working cameras, one of them on a side street near the bar. The kid flees here and pulls up short, as if someone has called out. Then I come into the scene, and he looks really annoyed for a moment. There’s no audio. I have no idea what we’re saying. I look over my shoulder. We both run.
I have to guess what’s happening, and be okay with guessing. But another moment is pinned, and filled. My processor almost sighs with relief. If we can fill in the missing time and repair the damage, I’ll be able to download. That is the goal.
The special ops team shows up at the spaceport; the officer in charge is yelling.
The kid and I go off-grid for an hour.
The whole city goes under security lockdown. Nothing in or out, no movement. Now I really want to know who this kid is. He looks so harmless.
And I don’t know how Nix got hold of this bit, but there’s an order transmitted to the special ops crew that identifies me as part of the crew of the Visigoth and to leave me alone, do not touch, do not engage, and definitely do not incapacitate.
“You have a hell of a reputation, you know that?” I say to Ransom, chuckling. He seems unamused.
“If they’d hurt you I would have murdered every last one of them with a blunt stiletto.”
Farin suddenly seems wary.
Then comes the money shot. We’re walking on a narrow street until I stop, and the kid faces me. He’s been sweating; he’s streaked with dirt that wasn’t there three hours ago. I appear to be pleading with him, gesturing. My lips are at a bad angle and I can’t read them. The kid has his back to the camera. I hate not knowing what we’re saying.
But I can guess. Label the moment, close the gap.
And then I slouch. I look so sad for a moment. The kid picks up my hand, clasps it. I would say that we’re downloading; this is exactly what it looks like when our people meet and exchange downloads. But that isn’t what happens here because he lets go, and I appear to be asleep. I don’t move, don’t react.
He seems to be taking a good long look at me, as if he wants to remember. Then he turns, and—he vanishes. The kid just disappears.
Farin, Ransom, and I flinch back in shock.
“The footage cut out,” I say, the obvious explanation.
Ransom taps at the tablet. Backs up, replays, backs up again, replays—freezes the footage.
There’s nothing wrong with the footage.
The kid took a step, and the step after didn’t hit the ground. He’s just gone.
“Where did he go?” Farin asks, with all the wonder of a child watching a magic trick.
“Teleportation,” I murmur. “That’s why we can’t find him coming or going.”
“I never would have thought of it,” Ransom says. “But there it is.”
Back to the footage: I walk out of the frame, oddly still and staring, like I’ve been hypnotized. This is because I’ve been hypnotized, or entranced, or something, I’m sure of it.
Chronologically, the next thing that happens is back inside the bar. I move calmly to the table, seemingly unaware of everything around me. I sit in exactly the spot I was in before, as if I have been given some command to do so.
And then I wake up.
“There,” I say, sitting up. “That’s it, that’s the next thing I remember.” My processor settles; diagnostics come up clean. This matches up with what I know and everything is fine, just fine. The gap is closed. We’ve fooled my processor into thinking the memories are there.
I had a whole goddamn adventure erased from my processor. How . . . unfair.
And I think I agreed to it. That the kid gave me a compelling reason and I let him do it. I didn’t think it was going to break me. Why would I? This has never happened to anyone before.
But my body, my bad dreams, remembered.
“Your system’s stabilized,” Farin says, sighing with what might be satisfaction. They start detaching monitors and lines.
I rub my arms, reassuring myself of the integrity of my own skin. If I really am stable I could shake hands with Farin now, exchange a download. My processor would be fine, I’m sure of it. I don’t even feel a twinge.
But Farin makes no move to take my hand.
“Am I cured or what?”
Farin shakes their head, which is troubling, and says, “I don’t think I understand what happened.”
I wonder if they have been out in the world at all, and I expect not, or our paths would have crossed—even distantly, through a dozen other memories. The analytors stay here to process what people like me send back.
“He’s like you,” Ransom says.
“He’s not one of ours, we would know—”
“No, but like you. Look, you people are out in the galaxy with all this tech and abilities that any polity or military organization would murder for. And no one knows about you. I mean, except me. You know what I mean. I don’t know your people’s history or how you got to be like this, and I don’t expect you to tell me, but. What if you’re not the only ones?”
Another group of people who keep themselves separate, develop their own tech, their own ways of using it, in order to . . . to what? I don’t know.
“And MilDiv knows,” I say softly. “They’re hunting him.”
I hope he’s okay.
“If there’s technology that affects our systems this profoundly, this is a terrible thing,” Farin says.
Based on the kid’s first reaction to me, he could tell what I was just by looking. And I shocked him. Whatever he is, wherever he came from, they don’t know about us.
And now they do.
“If he was able to manipulate my data, we have to assume he knows everything,” I say. Who we are, where home is, our capabilities. Everything.
Ransom gets this worried and determined look, battle ready. A strategic problem this time: how to keep his people safe, and he seems to have adopted my people as his, which is kind of sweet and something we will need to talk about later. Neither Farin nor I look worried, and this must confuse Ransom.
“We can defend ourselves,” Farin says. But secrecy is our first defense. Used to be.
I also think we might not have to defend ourselves. The kid didn’t fight—he ran. He had his own defense. He could have incapacitated me, taken me apart. Erased me completely.
He didn’t. He erased exactly what he needed to protect himself.
I’m feeling bereft and full of fondness for him. I must have liked him.
“It’s going to be all right.” I pat Ransom’s arm.
“Good. Can we leave now?”
Farin says, “There’s still discussion. A judgment to be made about Graff.”
“What judgment? Graff hasn’t done anything wrong! This was done to him!”
“The question is: should the damage inflicted on him be introduced to the record, or should he remain isolated, out of caution.” Farin looks at me, as if he expects an opinion from me.
I will never be allowed to download again, and from now on my experiences will be for me alone. It is a sort of death. I am unhappy, but the emotion is detached. It hasn’t settled yet. I have nothing to think, and nothing to say.
“Graff, what’s happening? You’re too quiet. Where’s the joke?”
I struggle to keep my voice from cracking, fail. “If I’m to be kept apart, then I should probably stay home. Because there isn’t a point to me going out anymore.”
“I don’t understand,” Ransom says. And then he gets angry. “Isn’t this experience worth recording, too? Or am I misunderstanding what you people do?”
The cleric straightens, their gaze narrowing. “Excuse me a moment.” They turn to walk out the door, taking the cart with them, leaving us alone in the echoing space.
“Graff,” Ransom says. Demands. “Do you want to stay?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“We could hot-wire that shuttle right now and get back to orbit. How about it?” He offers a hand—not the same gesture as from one of my own, but welcome nonetheless. I take it, and he pulls me to my feet. I’m standing, I’m stable.
“I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.” There’d still be the question of how we get back to the Visigoth. Hot-wire another ship, I suppose. We could do it.
“Right for whom?” he says sullenly. “I don’t like how they’re treating you.”
“Well, it turns out I’m entirely unique in the history of my people. Thank you for that opportunity, by the way.”
I laugh. Finally, I laugh. Then sigh. “I still have work to do,” I say, and this is true.
After not too much longer Farin returns to deliver judgment. I can’t read their expression. But . . . I feel the urge, the familiar compulsion. That connection, longing to be made.
I hold out my hand.
And Farin clasps it back.
I see it all. The realization, through them, that I have changed everything, and that Ransom is right, and this all—the experience of forgetting—needs to be incorporated and remembered. Farin places their other hand over mine and squeezes, a gesture of comfort.
Tez is taking us back to Tre Ateyna. We couldn’t convince anyone to let the Visigoth come here, and Ransom was sensible enough not to argue about it. We’d won just about all the arguments we were going to. Tez and I have downloaded again, and the realization of what I’ve been through—healed now, at least a little—has made her go quiet. From her, I get grief, that she thought she was carrying me home to my death. Relief, that she didn’t.
This knowledge, my experience, is going to ripple out among my people. This is a good thing, I think.
“You okay?” Ransom asks after the first jump.
“Stop asking,” I grumble.
“I think when we get home I’m going to ping a few contacts and see what I can scare up about certain special ops operations,” Ransom says, with that hunter’s gleam in his eye.
“I want to be there for that meeting.”
I don’t have the memories but I have a story that heals the gap. And I think I understand now how pilgrimages start. How religions rise up.
I want to find that kid again, or others like him. And keep the memories this time.
“Time: Marked and Mended” copyright © 2023 by Carrie Vaughn
Artwork copyright © 2023 by Eli Minaya